I am just finishing up very interesting literary bios on Baseball legends Henry Aaron and Joe DiMaggio. I was pretty surprised to learn they actually had a great deal in common. Both came from lower class urban backgrounds (Joe in SF and Hank in Mobile). Each man’s father worked on the waterfront (Joe’s Pop was a common fisherman, Henry’s Dad labored as a ship builder). Both smoked heavily throughout their careers and had public reputations of being cold and aloof. Both were jealous of more flashy stars of the era (Joe was often overshadowed by Ted Williams, while Hank played in the long shadow of Willie Mays). Each man was married twice. Both loved watching Western movies. Each player was a natural with amazing God-given baseball talents. Both shied away from the media due to their fear of looking uneducated. Neither man graduated high school. And guess who Hank’s idol was as a child? Yup, Joltin’ Joe.
Now for the differences. Joe was a drinker, Hank was not. DiMagg beat his wife, Henry did not. Henry was humble, DiMaggio’s ego was massive. Joe hung around mob figures, married a Hollywood starlet (Marilyn Monroe) and, by all accounts, whored around a good bit. Henry, on the other hand, was a quiet, commited family man. And perhaps most telling, Hank has put his retirement years to good use by doing a lot of community service and civil rights work. Joe, conversely, spent his golden years yearning for the spotlight and chasing the almighty dollar via an unending string of autograph schemes with shady partners. The infamous Mr. Coffee TV campaign was not exactly a great career move either for a man of Joe’s professed class and dignity.
Both books are well written, although the DiMaggio story bogs down a bit after the passing of Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the most fascinating revelation was regarding “Joltin’ Joe” and NYC’s mafia. DiMaggio was allegedly “watching” three suitcases filled with cash for a local mob friend. When that associate was rubbed out, Joe kept the suitcases and used the countless thousands for spending loot over the next decade or so. Years later, when a major earthquake shook Joe’s native San Francisco, DiMagg managed to deftly cross thru the police tape and enter his luxurious townhome by the Bay. He was later spotted by witnesses leaving the scene toting a rather large, bulky suitcase.
Lesson learned? Our heroes are obviously not perfect. Joe and Henry were surely amazingly gifted athletes, but flawed human beings (DiMaggio certainly more flawed than Aaron). So how do you want to be remembered? I would suggest living your life as if your future biographer is always at your side. Not easy, but surely something to think about — and strive for.